I'm a firm believer in the concept of country music as therapy. Whatever the complaint, from financial issues and problems within the family construct to infidelity, hangovers, and one-night stands, chances are that makers of real, down home country music have not only seen it, but examined it, torn it apart, damned it, done it again, and still come out on top. I'll never quite understand the desire to spend hard-earned money on anti-depressants and analysts when quick and painless healing can come simply from hitting the lights and throwing on some Matraca Berg. Or some Rodney Crowell.
Country music as therapy works due to audience connection via sensitive and strong lyrics. Writers and singers draw from their own life experiences, unafraid to examine weakness and imprudence with the kind of gut-wrenching honesty often reserved specifically for the therapist's couch. This kind of unwavering tenacity builds heroes in the country music genre, and it's what gives fans a leg up from detractors -- we've been there, and we know the effects a good country song can have on the psyche.
Melissa Gibson knows too. Having grown up in New England on a healthy diet of John Denver, Gibson felt drawn to the music of the South and, after studying piano and voice in her teen years, soon picked up a guitar and a pen and worked long and hard at perfecting the kind of musical styles and songwriting techniques that made Denver one of music's great storytellers. Finding further inspiration from the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Carole King, Gibson soon mastered the rawness and the sincerity of these women to sound almost like a veteran herself on her debut release, last year's Lighthouse Point.
She continues to impress on her latest release, Welcome to Stay. The 15-song epic leaps over and curls itself around all aspects of this woman's life. On the album opener, "Miles to Go", Gibson connects not only via the song's theme of incompleteness and age, but also through a strong melody and the kind of chorus her contemporaries would kill for. It's obvious too, this early on, the care taken on the album's production, sounding very much like it could have been recorded in one of Nashville's many cafes and coffeehouses.
Gibson keeps it simple, with her songs exploring universal themes of love, loss, distraction, attraction, and desire. This simplicity is what gives her music a lot of its strength, with such images as a walk along the Jersey Shore listening to the seagulls (on "Okay by Me") made just as powerful as Gibson's inability to accept the realities of her life on "Smoke and Mirrors".
Gibson's vocals are also simple, and remain cautiously staid throughout each of the album's tracks. This style doesn't necessarily work against the songs, and in fact, adds somewhat to the rawness of the whole thing, but it can become a little frustrating since Gibson is obviously capable of offering a lot more vocally. It's as though she has a very set story to tell and she goes about the business of telling it, letting little get in the way. This is probably the one thing holding her back from achieving greater stardom -- she really does need to let loose on a couple of her songs, to shift her already gorgeous, competent voice to another, tougher level.
Nonetheless, Welcome to Stay succeeds on so many other levels that this is a minor complaint. Her resounding sense of self allows her to tear her heart out on much of the album, generating thoughts and memories her listeners may have thought long forgotten. She tears through the songs on this album with stirring confidence, so that her audience comes to know her, to feel for her and with her. More importantly, her grace and sensitivity allows her audience to relate to her with little more than a few words or a familiar image. And isn't that the staple of any great artist?